In his fourth attempt at the title, Hayden Groves, executive chef for BaxterStorey, was crowned Craft Guild of Chefs National Chef of the Year (NCOTY) two weeks ago. Janie Manzoori-Stamford discovers that victory is sweet for the foodservice chef
How does it feel to have finally won a competition you have worked so hard for? Unbelievable. It still hasn't really sunk in. I like a bit of social media but the Twitter feed went crazy. It wasn't until after midnight that I started replying to people individually but I had to give up and do one big collective ‘thank you' tweet.
If anything, not placing last year made it all the sweeter. You've got to learn to lose before you can appreciate what it feels like to win.
The first time I competed I made it to the semi-final, and I was first reserve for the final, which I watched, naturally. I couldn't wait for the 2011 semi-final. I won that and placed third overall. To share the podium with Freddie Forster and Alyn Williams, two guys I look up to, was the proudest moment in my career.
It was hard to better that in 2012. That year taught me a good lesson, not just about competition cooking but about myself as an individual and sparked off a blog called It's Not About the Grouse.
Why the title? It's a blend of two ideas. I'm a very keen cyclist, which shaped my younger years. There's a book by my then idol Lance Armstrong called It's Not About the Bike, and I failed on my main course of grouse in the final. That failure has led to a lot of opportunities, though, such as my work with Borough Market in London. I write a monthly blog and recipe, which in turn led to me doing ad hoc demo sessions.
Did you ever doubt you would triumph? I've always doubted my ability throughout my career. It drove me to prove I was better, right from leaving college. My confidence took a huge knock last year, and when I wrote a blog post about the experience, it proved cathartic. When I was typing, I was reliving those experiences and realising the flaws as well as what I'd do differently with another opportunity.
What does winning the title mean for you? It's validation of what I've been doing over the past few years. I think it'll take a little bit of time to assess the next step and direction for me. It was utter relief for the family. For years, when it was competition time, it dominated my thoughts, whether I was playing in the park with my girls or out on the bike. It was always a dream.
How do you prepare psychologically for something like that? I've always been fairly physically fit, which is important because you have to push yourself, especially in practice. Being mentally fit is important too because you have to understand what it takes. You've got to want it, and when things don't go well in practice you have to learn from your mistakes.
Being someone who cycles and follows the sport closely, I'm aware of what's called marginal gains. What that means is if you can make a 1% improvement in everything you're doing over a set number of tasks, that's a huge benefit. How can I do that smarter, faster, cleaner, tidier? We trained hard and raced easy.
Were you ever tempted to give up? I questioned whether this year would be the right year to enter again, but my assistant for the final last year, Phill Skinazi, encouraged me to keep going. He helped to get me to the final by being my assistant for the semi, but due to business commitments he couldn't be there for the big day. I was ably assisted by a young man called Peter Ley, who did an exceptional job. It was his first competition and he's certainly a star in the making.
How do you think your cooking style has changed since you started competing? Competitions teach you a lot about yourself. They focus on trying to extract the maximum amount of flavour from a set of ingredients and you take those learnings back to your day job. I'm just as comfortable serving something simple like smoked salmon with a piece of lemon, brown bread and butter. I have confidence in my craft and an understanding of what people want to eat as much as I have in creating more complicated dishes.
As National Chef you have won a whole host of prizes. Which are you most looking forward to? To be honest they were secondary. The title and being in the ‘hall of fame' was all that mattered. One of the best prizes is more access to the likes of Phil Howard and being part of the group for next year's competition, either by promoting it or maybe judging Young National Chef of the Year, which I want to start promoting.
How important are competitions for chefs in your sector? Very, especially for contract catering chefs. For me and runner-up Simon Webb [head chef at CH&Co], who is a fantastic cook, to place so highly was fantastic. We don't have the opportunity to get exposure in the guide books; we're locked away in secret dining rooms.
Alastair Storey describes foodservice as the Cinderella of hospitality, so this sort of thing is the chance for contract chefs to shine.
Recent weeks have been very successful for BaxterStorey employees. What does this say about the company and the sector as a whole? If you find the right employer, employees are allowed to grow. They nurture talent and we can all see what the net result of that was. Foodservice is buoyant and bubbling at the moment and all this has really put it in the shop window. It's looking to employ talent in the high-end dining rooms of iconic businesses, because they want to keep their directors and clients in-house.
What do you like most about working in the foodservice sector? The opportunity to work with so many different chefs and styles. It's not a case of this is your restaurant, that's the decor, these are the plates. It's always moving and you move with it to keep up with the trends, such as going back to sympathetic cookery, looking at each ingredient to extract the most flavour and moving away from a big chunk of meat with a garnish for the sake of it. The cost of ingredients is rising; you have to get the most out of them.
What is required of a contract catering chef these days? At the higher levels, you're cooking less, which is why it's so surprising to win a competition like this. I don't spend my days cooking any more. While I can see the bag of flour, I don't always have my hands in it. You're someone who's in charge of health and safety, payroll, training, budgets and cost of sales. You're a businessman without the personal risk.
The sector is starting to get the recognition it deserves, especially with Alastair [Storey] being promoted to the number one spot of last year's Caterer and Hotelkeeper 100 list of the most powerful and influential people in hospitality, not to mention this month's inaugural Foodservice Cateys.
Are there different skill sets required of a contract catering chef?
You've been with BaxterStorey for over 18 months now. How have you found it in comparison to being at the Elior contract Lloyd's of London for seven-plus years? I'm so grateful to Lloyd's of London. It really shaped my career. It was my first big role in London and I was the youngest executive chef they'd had when I took the job at 29. Cooking for Lord Levene, chairman of Lloyd's of London, and his guests, including the Queen - that really was pressurised. I was very, very lucky to work with some talented cooks in that kitchen who cut their teeth with me and moved on to greater things.
Now my role is not so much at the sharp end but more strategic. There's a lot more planning involved because I have more of a group role rather than being in one site, albeit a massive one.
Are you tempted to own your own restaurant? Yes, one day - if there's anyone out there that wants to back me.
What advice do you have for young chefs hoping to be in your shoes one day? You've got to have a goal. Put your career in the hands of people you trust. It's all very well being interviewed for a job, but you almost need to interview the interviewers back. What are they going to do for you? What are they going to give back? People have got to want to do it, they've got to dream it and politely not let anything stand in the way.
NCOTY: THE FINAL
Using ingredients from a mystery basket unveiled at a mentor day prior to the final, the eight finalists had to deliver a three-course menu for four guests in two hours.
The judges included Craft Guild vice-president and competition organiser David Mulcahy of Sodexo, chairman of judges Phil Howard, Le Gavroche sous chef Monica Galetti, Murano chef-proprietor Angela Hartnett, the Cinnamon Club's Vivek Singh, Bruce Poole of Chez Bruce, the Elephant Torquay's Simon Hulstone, Gary Jones of â¨Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Hakkasan executive pastry chef Graham Hornigold, Lanesborough executive chef Paul Gayler, Westminster Kingsway College's Gary Hunter, Henry Harris of Racine and Craft Guild of Chefs vice-chairman Lee Maycock.
Groves' menu comprised soused Cornish mackerel, clams, passion fruit, a main course of rib eye of beef, pithivier, girolles, roasted Jerusalem artichoke, and a dessert of blackberry, vanilla, caramelised white chocolate, cinnamon and Bramley apple doughnuts.
HAYDEN GROVES' PRIZE POT
•£1,250 voucher to spend within the Lockhart product range plus a unique study trip to France with a guest, including factory visits, a trip to the Valrhona chocolate school, wine tasting and dinner at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant, courtesy â¨of Lockhart in association with Revol
•Electrolux Professional equipment to the sales value of £1,500
•£1,500 activity/adventure voucher and a year's supply of Knorr Bouillon
•All expenses paid trip to Figgjo in Norway, courtesy of Continental Chef Supplies
•Winner's plate framed with the winner's medal as well as an additional prize of £500 worth of Churchill products
•90-piece Robert Welch Designs cutlery oak canteen
•Fortnum & Mason hamper, courtesy of Blue Arrow
NCOTY ROLL CALL
2013 Hayden Groves
2012 Alyn Williams
2011 Frederick Forster
2010 Hrishikesh Desai
2008 Simon Hulstone
2006 Eyck Zimmer
2004 Steve Love
2002 Mark Sargeant
2000 Bruce Sangster
1998 Kevin Viner
1996 David Everitt-Matthias
1994 Lou Jones
1992 Gordon Ramsay
1990 Roger Narbett
1988 Mark Gregory
1986 David Pitchford
1984 Robert Mabey
1982 William Stafford
1980 Ken Whibley
1978 Paul Brady
1976 Eddie van Meille
1974 Bryan Price
1972 Pierre Jacquemin
THE 2013 NCOTY FINALIST
•Russell Bateman, head chef, Colette's restaurant, Hertfordshire
•Alex Bond, head chef, â¨Turners restaurant, Birmingham
•David Bush, senior chef de partie, House of Commons
•Hayden Groves, executive chef, BaxterStorey
•Lahiru Jayasekara, head chef, The Manor, Weston-on-the-Green, Bicester
•Joe McCafferty, head chef, â¨Flesh & Buns, London
•Simon Webb, head chef, CH&Co
•Andrew Wright, sous chef, Restaurant 23, Leamington Spa
HAYDEN GROVES' NCOTY DESSERT - BLACKBERRY, VANILLA, CARAMELISED WHITE CHOCOLATE, CINNAMON AND BRAMLEY APPLE DOUGHNUTS
For the doughnuts (enough for 35) 450g soft flour
30g beaten egg
45g caster sugar
For the apple filling for the doughnuts 2 Bramley apples, peeled, cored and cut into 8
For the berry yogurt ice-cream (enough for 10) 200g sieved blackberry purée
175g Greek yogurt
175g whipping cream
For the berry foam (enough for 10 portions) 300g sieved blackberry purée
50g orange juice
35g caster sugar
2 gelatine leaves each
For the blackberry jelly (enough for 10 portions) 110g sieved blackberry purée
1 leaf gelatine
25g orange juice
For the panna cotta (enough for 10 portions) 200g milk
400g double cream
2 vanilla pods each
80g caster sugar
2 gelatine leaves each
For the caramelised white chocolate 150g white chocolate
Method First, make the doughnuts. Mix the flour, water, egg, caster sugar, yeast and salt to a dough for five minutes. Add 45g soft butter and beat in for three minutes. Shape into 20g balls and allow to prove on strips of greased silicone paper. Prove for 60 to 90 minutes.
Fry at 170Â°C for one minute, turn and cook for a further minute and then two minutes, stirring and turning gently to ensure even colour. Drain on absorbent cloth, roll in cinnamon sugar.
To prepare the cinnamon sugar, warm cinnamon bark for five minutes in the oven at 140Â°C, blend to a powder, sieve and add caster sugar to taste.
To make the apple filling for the doughnuts, rub the apple wedges with lemon, put in a vac pack bag with sugar and seal tight. Poach in water until they are soft and can pass easily through a sieve. Check if further sugar is required for flavour.
Put all the ingredients for the berry yogurt ice-cream in a blender, then purée, sieve and churn in an ice-cream maker.
To make the berry foam, simmer the juice, water and sugar in a pan, add soaked gelatine, blend with cold purée, pass into a siphon, charge with two gas chargers/cartridges, reserve and chill well.
Next, prepare the blackberry jelly. Warm the water, orange and sugar, add the gelatine and cold blackberry purée.
To make the caramelised white chocolate, bake the white chocolate chunks on a Silpat mat at 140Â°C until they are a light golden colour (approximately 15 minutes). Freeze to harden and then hand-chop. To serve, mix random pieces with a small pinch of sea salt.
To prepare the panna cotta, scald milk and cream with vanilla pods (seeds added to the infusion), take off the heat and whisk in the sugar and soaked gelatine leaves; allow this to cool and thicken so the seeds are suspended evenly. Remove the pod.
To finish, put 40g of the panna cotta mix in a glass and allow to set. Top with 15g of jelly and allow to set. Sprinkle a teaspoon of the chocolate chunks on top of the jelly, then top with three halved blackberries (sprinkle with sugar and macerate in crème de mure for 20 minutes, if using). Scoop a ball of berry yogurt ice-cream and place on top of the berries. Cover with the foam to hide it. Sprinkle with small pieces of chocolate. Fill the warm doughnut with warm Bramley purée and serve.
•Although Groves had to produce only four covers for the final, certain recipe bases, such as the doughnuts, had to be made in minimum quantities. Also, there wasn't any crème de mure in the mystery basket.